Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique); Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique); Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
PERFORMER: Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: 456 580-2
Gergiev’s disappointing Viennese Tchaikovsky Fifth signalled the decline of the record companies’ mainstream policy; but this astonishingly characterful Pathétique, made in Finland with his home Kirov team, answers it triumphantly. It’s a more subjective reading than Mravinsky’s Classical approach but at times even more exciting and more highly coloured – surely the best recording of the work for nearly 40 years. Gergiev’s liberties, once he’s established a broad canvas, are few but telling and the right kind of tension informs every phrase; the tripping link between the two statements of the first movement’s big tune has an unmistakable sexual charge. The Russian lower strings and trombones have a depth which even the up-front recording can’t disguise; and, for introspection, no clarinet solo in my experience has ever reproduced Tchaikovsky’s extreme injunction, pppp, more magically. The love theme of a superbly vocalised Romeo and Juliet, too, has a unique inwardness as it steals in on cor anglais and violas.

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Inevitably, two other remarkable conductors pale just a little in Gergiev’s company. Giulini’s 1961 Edinburgh Festival performance is beefier than the expected image of this aristocratic master-balancer had led me to expect, and there are occasional lapses of ensemble in the first two movements; while kind Kubelík balances heat and light superbly but doesn’t quite manage to light up the sheen of Viennese strings from within. In both cases, the companion piece is the thing: from Kubelík, the world premiere of Martinu’s shimmering, kaleidoscopic Frescoes and from Giulini an astonishingly earthy Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures which is sophisticated when it needs to be.